Under the current guest-worker program, workers are tied to a single employer. That's a hinderance for businesses, which have to pay three-quarters of a worker's salary if a person is let go while under contract. If crops are hit with a bad frost and a harvest is ruined, farmers still need to pay out the majority of the contract to the workers.
Surprisingly, the largest farm workers union, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), does not oppose the hiring and firing change.
The reason? The contracts tie workers to a single employer, under the conditions of their visa. If a worker is under contract with an unscrupulous employer, he or she might be afraid to report abuses for fear of losing their visa, according to Maria Machuca, communications director for UFW.
"They don't have the same flexibility that other workers in the United States have to go to another employer that will treat them better," she said.
However, the union doesn't want to see any other worker rights rolled back in a guest-worker program, Machuca said. "We understand there's a need for legal workforce and we want to make sure we address those issues, but in a way where it doesn't affect the workers themselves, where they continue to have their protections."
4. The Flow of Farm Workers From Mexico Is Slowing Down
When farmers complain that they can't get enough immigrant workers, observers often blame border security and "show me your papers" laws targeting immigrants at the state level. But there's another reason for the labor shortages: Mexican workers -- both in the U.S. and Mexico -- are increasingly less likely to do farm work.
A study by another UC Davis professor, Ed Taylor, shows that fewer Mexicans are working in agriculture. "It's not just the U.S., it's all around the world -- as incomes go up, people stop doing hired farm work," Taylor said.
At the same time, Mexican farms are increasingly competing with those in the U.S. for workers.
For decades, the U.S. has relied on Mexican immigration to keep the agricultural sector afloat, Taylor says, but that won't continue forever. "Our era of farm labor abundance is coming to an end," he said.
Taylor thinks growers will eventually need to embrace a new approach: either grow less labor-intensive crops, seek out a new source of immigrant workers or improve technology. But for now, the most realistic option is a guest-worker program.
"If I were them, I would probably be pushing for it as a short-term stop-gap solution," he said, "but I would sure want to be aware of this longer-term trend in supply of labor from Mexico."
5. Agriculture Gets Special Treatment From the Federal Government
Unlike other sectors, like manufacturing or technology, farming has its own official seat in Washington: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Founded 150 years ago when most Americans were farmers, the USDA now manages everything from school lunches to maintaining national forests.
Because of our agrarian roots -- and the importance of the food supply -- agriculture gets special consideration from the U.S. government, according to Philip Martin.
"We have always made exceptions for agriculture," he said. "We have unique agricultural policies, there's water that's different for agriculture, there are tax laws that are different for agriculture....It's history."